How Important is Historical Accuracy in Historical Writing?

Not long ago my husband Monte was reading a romance novel that was part of our household clutter. In one scene the author noted the moon was full on a certain nigh.

Monte said “this information is wrong.”

He surfed the Internet. Data he found confirmed his suspicions: the moon was not full that specific night. From that point on the author lost her integrity with him.

pix of a moon

Currently I’m entrenched in writing a historical romance novel—this is its website.

It is taking me an extended amount of time. The novel began evolving about year 2000 and still remains a novel-under-construction.

The plot of the novel rests on a skeleton of historicity which includes the use of real names (Ben. Henry Knox, Gen. Henry Jackson), real events (1790s land grants), real places.

In between the reality lies information not available. This allows me to add flesh to the skeleton. More flesh comes from a rewording of historical documents. It is, so to say, speaking from the horse’s mouth.

I’ve decided that keeping to historical facts—names, places, events, conversations—is an important part of my novel. For example, I cannot have my character Rosalie meeting with Gen. Jackson in Philadelphia when he is documented to be in Boston.

Being a writer who sticks to historical facts from as many original documents as possible causes my writing to be more demanding, take more time, and be more interesting.

Numerous persons have advised me to not use real names and/or to be such a stickler for historical details. However, I feel if it can be shown that I was careless with the facts my integrity as a historical writer will be diminished. I saw how Monte lost integrity with an author over just a minute detail.

In the last six months two notable historic authors spoke in the Pittsburgh area—Nathaniel Philbrick and Norman L. Baker. Philbrick referenced another reknown author, David McCullough. Each speaks to the issue of historical authenticity.

NATHANIEL PHILBRICK

On May 16, 2013, Nathaniel Philbrick appeared at the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures. I did not attend, but read the newspaper account of his lecture after the fact.

  • Like Pittsburgh native Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, Philbrick’s goal is to illuminate history through the letters, correspondences, newspapers accounts and documents of the era. Both men attended Linden Elementary School in Point Breeze.
  • “When you do that, instead of generalities and dates and the history we get when we are young, you get people,” Philbrick says. “They become human beings in very different times, and that’s part of what’s interesting, how different it was. But there’s also a universal, essential humanity that comes out.”

Philbrick authored Bunker Hill, Why Read Moby Dick, The Last Stand, and Sea of Glory, among other titles.

DAVID McCULLOUGH

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough authored John Adams, 1776, and The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. The latter novel was discussed in an interview for AARP magazine. Below are selected comments:

  • McCullough, who turns 78 this year, made periodic trips to Paris with his wife, Rosalee, during research for his book. “I had to get Paris right. I wanted to be there in all climates, all seasons, all circumstances.”
  • (He said:) Settings are of the utmost importance in understanding the people of other times when you’re writing history and biography. I wanted to soak that up. The material that I based the book on, that I drew material from, is not in Paris. It’s here in the United States. It’s in English, in the letters and diaries that survived. These materials are in universities and collections — in the Library of Congress and others. But the setting is critical.

NORMAN L. BAKER

On November 7, 2013, I attended a talk by another author, Norman L. Baker at the Westmoreland County Historical Society. Baker spoke about writing his book Braddock’s Road: Mapping the British Expedition from Alexandria to the Monongahela.

He questionedhy write another book or article on Braddock’s Road?

  • “Being an engineer I seek facts and truth. If you don’t deal with these you can’t have success,” he said.

He learned that many authors who wrote about Braddock’s Road relied on information of previous authors, whose information was not always accurate.

  • “The fault of historians is they keep building on works of others without checking it (original documents) out themselves. It was one historian copying another…”
  • He decided not only to authenticate his data through original documents, but he personally walked most of the trail himself.
  • “I built on their (previous authors) work, but I did my own work,” he noted.

Much of his emphasis about writing on history was put on researching original documents.

BACK TO MY HISTORICAL NOVEL

Hearing from three great novelists about the importance of historicity and basing that historicity on original documents supports my stand to maintain historical integrity in my novel, in spite of the fact that it is terribly demanding.

If I’m lucky, I may live long enough for my novel to be completed and to become a great historical novel.

If I’m lucky.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

ADDITIONAL READING:

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One response to “How Important is Historical Accuracy in Historical Writing?

  1. What a great site. I love that you are documenting your approach to historical writing and the challenges that come with writing in that genre. I am also trying to achieve this in my novel in progress. It’s a fine line between keeping the writing relevant to the modern reader, capturing the timeline the novel is set with historical accuracy while not bombarding the reader with facts of the time. Good luck 🙂

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